Eroticism and Sapiosexuality In Documentary Art
“The cause of Hitler’s Germany is about two thirds of the Ominous Parallels, a book of mine first published in 1982. In the book, I intended a warning: If Americans continue to accept and act on the same philosophic ideas that led to the Third Reich, then America will have to follow a parallel course and suffer the same result”
— Dr. Leonard Peikoff, page 1 of the February 2013 preface to The Cause of Hitler’s Germany which was published as The Ominous Parallels in 1982
“Eroticism isn’t sex; it’s sexuality transformed by the human imagination. It’s the thoughts, dreams, anticipation, unruly impulses, and even painful memories which make up our vast erotic landscapes.
— Esther Perel from her article “Why Eroticism Should be Part of Your Self-Care Plan”
“In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art”
— Susan Sontag; last sentence in her essay “Against Interpretation”
In light of the catastrophe that’s been a Donald Trump (I’ll refer to him form now as d.t.) presidency and its hijacking and corruption of a political party that once put an end to slavery in the United States, a Hitleresque coup (I’m referencing Hitler’s failed 1923 Beer Putsch coup), his outright denial of the threat that Covid posed (just pray, d.t. said), and an emboldenment of a Stalin-ish v.p (vlad poot, not Pence) who invaded Ukraine and threatens to instigate a third world war, do you find it uncanny that the philosopher Dr. Leonard Peikoff predicted that events in America would resemble those in Hitler’s Germany simply by analyzing the evolution of philosophical ideas that spread within a society? Or put another way… thoughts that were materialized? He wasn’t the only philosopher to see connections between philosophical ideas, how they circulated, and how they led to Hitler’s Germany. Bertrand Russell made an interesting claim about the aesthetics of romanticism in his book The History of Western Philosophy. One aspect of his description of romanticism is that it was “a profound revolt, both philosophical and political, against traditional systems in thought, in politics, and in economics….The romantic revolt passes from Byron, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, to Mussolini and Hitler” (719). How does romanticism lead us to anything resembling Hitler?
“[I]t is their standard of values. They admire strong passions, of no matter what kind, and whatever may be their social consequences. Romantic love, especially when unfortunate, is strong enough to win their approval, but most of the strongest passions are destructive — hate, and resentment, and jealousy, remorse and despair, outraged pride and the fury of the unjustly oppressed, martial ardor and contempt for slaves and cowards. Hence, the type of man encouraged by romanticism, especially of the Byronic variety, is violent and anti-social, an anarchic rebel or a conquering tyrant.” (681).
A drive which might make an idealism so myopic — i.e., idealizing of things — that it turns into fundamentalist ideology, i.e., closed to science and empirically informed reason. One might argue that romanticism was unbalanced (certainly, I think we can infer that this was Bertrand Russell’s impression) too much idealism, not enough appreciation for the material realm of the multiverse. Indeed, Dostoevsky’s “underground man” from his short novel, Notes From Underground (written upon reflection of his move away from his earlier romantic styled stories) says of the romantic aesthetic:
“It’s a burden for us even to be men — men with real, our own bodies and blood; we’re ashamed of it, we consider it a disgrace, and keep trying to be some unprecedented omni- men. We’re stillborn…Soon we’ll contrive to be born somehow from an idea” (130).
My point in sharing these citations with you is to underscore a sense, in theory, of the relationship, in practice, between aesthetics and politics and thus thoughts and the material/perceivable. An individual artist may not make or break an individual politician’s ideology and vote, but one could, and anyway, at the very least, an artist can contribute to and strengthen a broader ethos. It is for this reason that I find the question of what impact art can have on how people think and what they do with it is so interesting. As for the role of documentary art — and I’ll explore documentary poetry (or docupoetry) more specifically (“docupoetry” is defined, in an essay prompt written by poet Russel Brakefield, as “any creative writing that collaborates with archival documents or takes a documentary approach” (4). — , it raises the question of the roles of mind and matter or idealism and materialism in aesthetics and the impact of aesthetics. This I mention because some folks with a stronger connection to the romantics or at least the idealistic and imaginative, fear that docupoetry is too materialistic. Some argue that it’s quite to the contrary. From here, I’m going to argue here that when idealism and materialism are combined and balanced it can have what I consider an erotic aesthetics, and that such aesthetics can, to quote Russell Brakefield again, “offer critical interruptions to corrupt or broken systems in our society” — systems which we should consider with a balance between idealism and materialism, or thoughts and matter (4). Last, I’m going to offer two examples that I believe illustrate an erotic aesthetic and why I think they’re erotic and powerful.
Whatever we may think about the fascinating Romantic movement of the nineteenth century, it has very clearly made a profound impact on things we contemplate re: art, these days. Joseph Harrington, in his essay “Docupoetry and archive desire” says, regarding poetry, “[T]he general trend, from the Romantic era onwards, has been towards understanding poetry as an art form that expresses the current thoughts and emotions of the individual, without documenting the past experience of collectivities.” This, as opposed to “a poetry of externals, of historical fact, of groups rather than individuals.” The most interesting critique, in my opinion, of a poetics that too myopically fixates on “externals” and “fact” comes from the poet Nada Gordon, whom Harrington cites in the aforementioned article. Nada Gordon claims that docupoetry lacks imagination and “necessarily entails ‘a kind of deadness of the already decided[,] the foregone conclusion’ [which is] ‘grasping for mimesis and reportage at the expense of verbal imagination,[… and] “leaves no room for the imagination’” (qtd in Harrington).
In all fairness to Nada Gordon, just like any person’s conscious mode of self expression, documentary poetry COULD significantly lack imagination. And, aesthetically speaking, her emphasis on the value of imagination…as such… makes perfect sense. Imagination (as I speculate it) is the meeting of space energy and imaginary energy, thus the creation of thought…which can possibly but not necessarily materialize, manifest, turn into matter. “Thoughts” seems pretty akin to what physicists refer to as “possibilities” — an infinity of existing but not material things in an imaginary state or form of energy or in imaginary space. Because this imaginary space and its thoughts are so mystifying and unknown, they tend to induce within us a state of wonder, and/or to borrow Nada Gordon’s eloquent phrasing, the not yet decided…or inconclusiveness.
My description there, is no doubt speculative, metaphysical, and vague… so a concrete analogy, courtesy of quantum physics, which may perhaps flesh this idea out a bit more, is the nature of how subatomic particles materialize. The famous physicist Niel Bohr
“(and Werner Heisenberg) noted that, according to experiment, an electron is not a precise entity, but exists as a potential, a superposition, or sum, of all probabilities until we observe it, at which point the electron freezes into a particular state. Once we are through looking or measuring, the electron dissolves back into the ether of all possibilities” (McTaggert 157).
(That freezing of the electron being the materialization within a wave; the so-called “ether of all possibilities” perhaps being, like I said, a field or wave of thoughts.) From an aesthetic point of view that appreciates physics and metaphysics, like Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge’s A Treatise on Stars, that piece of time when a subatomic particle suddenly appears is really quite analogous to orgasm (as well as even the creation of a new embryo), this interaction of dual states (imaginary space or thoughts and perceivable space) that leads to materialization, and is thus, utterly erotic. There’s an event comprised of both a mind’s aim directed at the unlimited “possibilities” or inspiring us to think of them, and a mind’s act of minding the “facts on the ground,” so to speak, all the while, there is no actual “conclusion.” In lieu of conclusion we get a current, working interpretation. A hopefully somewhat decent idea. A further clarification subject to more further clarifications. Naturally, art that projects more possibilities than an array of conclusions can be comforting — ironically, similar to the way things in a materialized state tend to behave predictably. The beauty of BOTH possibility or thought and predicability or current knowledge based on most recent understandings or those theories which “stand the test of time.” The means to BOTH gain a sense of sort of understanding (“Look into my heart and you will sort of understand” as Bob Dylan sings in the song “Thunder on a Mountain”) and yet not imprisoned in space and time and motion, not still, not…perhaps….dead…; BOTH imaginary space and perceivable space. So what Nada Gordon describes is legitimate as a concern in general about all modes of thought and expression but docupoetry isn’t inherently “unimaginative” or guilty… like some romantic poetry… of perhaps excessive imagination to a point of “losing ground,” so to speak: what follows are two examples of docupoetry that I find quite erotic and balanced in terms of imaginary and perceivable spaces, thought and matter or material.
In the theoretical essay on poetics (transpoetics, to be more precise, however, a key element of transpoetics is docupoetic) “Making Love and Putting On Obscene Plays and Poetry Outside the Empty Former Prison,” Andrea Abi-Karam and Kay Gabriel speak of “forcing an encounter between the ideal and the actual,” between the imaginary and the material (25). Another way they put it is “the project of imagining and making actual a totally inverted world” (22). In another instance they write: “We wanted to be surprised by a poem’s alignment of form and imagination” (27; emphasis mine). What’s especially interesting to me is that they furthermore write: of a poetics that projects an “exuberant — rather than despairing — lyricism inflected towards pleasure” (30). The word “pleasure” surely is key. But they’re not simply implicit about this “pleasure” of experiencing the sacred communion of the two basic forms of space (imaginary and perceivable). Or, put another way, they appreciate the fullness of the erotic, a metaphysics and aesthetics that is erotic in all of eroticism’s variants, sex included — the tantric orgasm of the erotic, let us say. They call for a poetics that offers a “liberatory reworking of gender and sexual relations” (22). AUTHENTIC CREATIVITY and thus a LITERAL “interruption” of not just “the corrupt or broken systems” but even those that are status-quo; an erotic expansion of consciousness (which I define as a unified, macro-conscious field of micro-conscious thoughts) as well as the expansion of perceivable space.)
Another work of docupoetry to consider which I think is really beautiful and not only very explicitly erotic, but which explicitly and erotically calls for the explicitly erotic: the epistle “Correspondence on Erotics and Karaoke Rooms” (I really love this word “erotics.” But what does it mean? My research led me, inadvertently and ironically to Susan Sontag. It’s especially ironic to me because 1) The aforementioned epistle references Susan Sontag and I actually didn’t think much about the reference; 2) I’m a fan of Susan Sontag, I’m familiar with the essay where she mentions “erotics” and yet I never thought much about it! In any event, if Susan Sontag considers “erotics” as the necessary replacement for hermeneutics, does this mean, an attempt to identify the erotic within something and discuss? It seems likely since the two authors discuss what they suspect may be erotic and why they think so). This is a piece by Clara Zordazdo and Jo Barchi. Here’s Clara Zordazdo’s take:
“So, what’s erotic in the epistolary? I think passivity in all communication is a turn-off,
and that the least taunting, most intimate thing to do is to ask for something because
you’d love to have it. Read my letter and see if you want to write back. That’s an
invitation. For you.” (128)
Authentic desire “from the heart” so to speak, held in consciousness, pursued with the intention to materialize. In this sense, we can think of erotic as possibly but not necessarily sexual (depends on what Clara Zordazdo means by “turned on”) but nonetheless, “forcing an encounter between the ideal and the actual,” to reiterate what Andrea Abi-Karam and Kay Gabriel say in the previously considered text. Jo Barchi is more explicitly erotically explicit than Zordazdo: “A lack of the explicit is the biggest turn off for me. Say what you mean. Throw it out there and let it fall on me. That’s my greatest fantasy. Someone telling me the truth” (130). The poet I mentioned earlier, Nada Gordon, might find this to be a contradiction, and might argue that explicitness permits no fantasy and fantasy permits no choice; that truth is the end of the matter. Jo Barchi does try to elaborate.
“I find erotics so enticing and so hot mainly because I don’t know how to define it. I don’t really know what it means when people use it, but I know how it feels. I know something is erotic because it connects with my chest…I don’t claim to know what everything means, but I do claim to be turned on when I learn” (130.)
I can relate deeply and utterly to Barchi’s awesome sapiosexuality. The seduction and tantric touches of intelligence! Thought at work towards a constructive deeper union to reality in its most fundamental sense. As if it were wind, Jo Barchi FEELS the “erotic because it connects with my chest.” To bring it back to an aesthetics which appreciates meta and quantum physics: something from beyond perception and materialism, someplace or something which until further notice is a piece or energetic charge of imaginary space, like that materializing and thus perceivable subatomic particle, when no one is observing…but when we do, we learn, and because it’s erotic, it can turn us on, as “Eroticism is not sex per se, but the qualities of vitality, curiosity, and spontaneity that make us feel alive” (Perel).
So abstractly speaking, the erotic thinks about infinite possibility and how to materialize a possibility. Concretely, the erotic, “rather than despairing” — to return to Andrea Abi-Karam and Kay Gabriel’s thinking once more, acknowledges cultural and political tragedy and seeks to improve circumstances “with exuberance!” The improvement first exists in the form of thought, i.e., a possibility, in consciousness, within or a piece of imaginary space, and turns that thought-possibility into a piece of perceivable state of space. Well, look: we live in an era of a Nazi-ish Republican party that corrupted, for example, our Supreme Court, which outlawed a form of bodily autonomy — a woman’s right to abortion, threatening our country info further regression. Okay. True. But the present is not the conclusion. And it’s thus possible to change, if we can explicitly verbalize and explain how and what we think it could and should be like. Although we can’t say what impact docupoetry or documentary art more generally will necessarily have, we can balance imaginary and perceivable space, we can think out, for example, within imaginary space, let us say, a more Liberal, just, and constitutional supreme court, but… based on the current tendencies of physics et cetera — the material matter and its archives, records, the documentations of the perceivable, tangible yet open-ended present. And I’ll conclude with a concrete example. Consultant, activist, artist and Naropa University professor Ana Anu (who I was fortunate enough to meet and ask some questions to) “merge[s] Environmental Justice with The Arts” (Anu) On her website she shares an example of a collaborative “Eco installation… working with natural materials to make public signs [which] students and farmers worked together to arrange Frontline[Farm’s] previous season corn crop into letters” (Anu) “This piece, reading ‘JUSTICE 4 FARMWORKERS’ was installed on Federal Blvd in Denver, on the property of Frontline Farming’s Sisters Garden” (Anu) The goal was “to raise awareness and engagement around SB21–087, a Colorado Farmworker Rights Bill” “which passed and was signed into law by summer 2020, becoming [Ana Anu says] the most comprehensive Farmworker Rights law in the country.” There is an erotic charge or figurative orgasm in that, if you’re sapiosexual (and perhaps very political) don’t you think? Do you feel it?
Abi Karam & Gabriel Kay. “Making Love and Putting On Obscene Plays and Poetry Outside The Empty Former Prisons.” We Want It All: An Anthology of Radical Transpoetics. Nightboat Books, 2020
Anu, Ana. Environmental Justice. Ana Anu (Website.) https://www.anaanuarts.com/environmental-justice; date accessed: 16 July 2022
Anu, Ana. “Material Poetics.” Ana Anu Arts (Website.) https://www.anaanuarts.com/gallery-2; date accessed 16 July 2022
Brakefield, Russell. MFA: Final Portfolio (Assignment Guide). School of Disembodies Poetics, Naropa University. 2022
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. (Translation by Pevear, Richard, and Volokhonsky) Notes From Underground. Vintage Books, Division of Random House, Inc., 1993
Harrington, Joseph. “Docupoetry and archive desire.” Jacket, 27 October 2011. https:// jacket2.org/article/docupoetry-and-archive-desire; accessed 11 July 2022
McTaggart, Lynne. The Field: The Quest for the Secret Force of the Universe 2nd Edition. Harper Collins e-books. n.d.
MFA: Final Portfolio (Guidelines Document). Jack Kerouac School if Disembodies Poetics, Naropa University, 2022
Peikoff, Leonard. The Cause of Hitler’s Germany. Penguin Group. 2014
Perel, Esther. Esther Perel (Website) https://www.estherperel.com/; accessed 16 July 2022
Russell, Bertrand. The History of Western Philosophy. Simon and Schuster Inc. 1972
Zornazdo, Clara; Barchi, Joe. “Correspondence on Erotics and Karaoke Rooms.” We Want It All: An Anthology of Radical Transpoetics. Nightboat Books, 2020